January 16, 2006

No Center

In The Measure of Reality, Alfred Crosby makes an important observation about the nature of Western culture (pp. 53-54):

Change was not greater in the late medieval West than it would be in that society a half millennium later during the industrial revolution, but it may have seemed so. Europe in 1000 had no set way to think about change, certainly not social change, while Europe of 1750 was at least acquainted with the concept.

Yet the West, compared with contemporary Muslim, Indian, and Chinese civilizations, was uniquely prepared to survive and even to profit from such an avalanche of change. Western Europe had the characteristics that physicians seeking means to counter the disorders of senescence hope to find in fetal tissue, that is to say, not so much vigor, though that is surely valuable in itself, as a lack of differentiation. Fetal tissue is so young that it retains the potentiality for becoming whatever kind of tissue is required.

The West lacked firmness of political and religious and, speaking in the broadest generality, cultural authority. It was, among the great civilizations, unique in its stubborn resistance to political, religious, and intellectual centralization and standardization. It shared one thing with the universe as described by such mystics as Nicholas of Cusa and Giordano Bruno: it had no center and, therefore, had centers everywhere.

Here we see, early on, that Western cultures were decentralized. And I think they have become more so over time. In religion, for instance, Western Civilization in 1000 was much more centralized (turning, as it did, upon a central point in Rome) than it was to become soon after 1500 or, even more so, in 2000. Protestantism was in important respects a movement of decentralization.

I think we see a similar phenomenon in the realm of secular power, especially in those subcultures of Western civilization that are most dynamic. Consider the difference between, say, the Francosphere (which rotates around the sun of Paris) and the Anglosphere (which has major nodes in London and New York but many other quite significant nodes in Chicago, Los Angeles, Sydney, Toronto, and the like). The Czechs even have a word for it in their country: Pragocentrismus, the centralization of all national life in Prague.

Cultures that are resistant to centralization are also resistant to ossification, to what Carrroll Quigley called the decline of (productive) instruments into (obstructionist) institutions. Even today, there is much evidence that the foxlike cultures of the Anglosphere retain "the potentiality of becoming whatever is required" in order to meet the challenges of technological and social change (which all indications are will soon be faster and more radical than ever). Indeed, Western civilization and especially its Anglosphere subculture are not only prepared to react to such change, they are actively fomenting it. Headlong into the future we go. May we live in interesting times. :-)

(Cross-posted at one small voice.)

Posted by Peter Saint-Andre at January 16, 2006 09:57 PM

China may be well-posed for increased growth because it's quite decentralized. There is no single dominant city and no hirearchal religion. The Communist Party is really the only centralizing influence, and whether it can overcome opposing influences is debateable.

Posted by: Peter at January 16, 2006 10:11 PM

Peter, it's interesting that you bring up China because, after reading the post I felt that China is a case in point of how overbearing, inflexible institutions like the Chinese political culture serve cannot well adapt to the changin' times.

A little after the mild media interest in the shootings in Shangwei, I wrote about how I thought the Chinese political system did not have the mechanisms to effectively and organically deal with upheaval - something democratic societies, like India, do possess. I'll reiterate it again - China's political authoritarianism has been blessed by 20 years of 10% GDP growth and yet we still have Tiannamen, Guangdong, Hong Kong, and thousands upon thousands of underreported incidents per annum ... So what happens when growth dips to 8%? 6%? 3%? What happens if their financial sector collapses? Does the CCP have the ability to deal with the fallout? I think not. Their only contingency plan, at this point, is either using the chaos and latent nationalism to their advantage to subdue Taiwan or just a repeat of 1989.

In short, the PLA is their emergency solution.

Posted by: Anton Traversa at January 17, 2006 02:48 PM

For that matter, how does anybody know that China's been enjoying 10% growth per annum? They may be, but certainly their published statistics aren't any kind of reliable data.

Whenever I hear people talk about China's wondrous economy I akways think of a conversation I had with an enthusiastic American student Maoist back in the '60s -- she was saying that while we Westerners might not like Maoist lack of freedom, "at least nobody in China was starving, unlike in India". When I asked "How can we know that nobody is starving in China if there is no freedom of the press?" she got this look of total astonishment on her face -- she had never considered the possibility that the Maoists were using their totalitarian control to lie about something as basic as that.

Which of course they were.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at January 17, 2006 03:03 PM

Most major civilizations outside of Europe from, say, 1500-1850 were in decline relative to their own past accomplishments. (See Charles Murray's "Human Accomplishment" for quantification.) The one exception was Japan, which was seeing a lot of artistic and technological progress in the Shogun era -- not as much as the West, but much more than China, India, or the Middle East. It might be worth your while to consider what in Japan allowed it to avoid stasis even during a period of extreme isolation from the outside world.

Posted by: Steve Sailer at January 17, 2006 03:49 PM

Jim - you have a good point only the Chinese gov't, officially at least, has been trying to cool off the economy. This, of course, may all be a ruse.

I wish I knew more about Japan (since my mother is a Japanese national) and the specifics of its fascinating, if decidedly checkered, history.

Posted by: Anton Traversa at January 17, 2006 07:47 PM

One good book that inlcudes a discussion of Japan (and which specifically addresses some of the issues Steve Sailer raises) is Alan Macfarlane's The Making of the Modern World, specifically the parts on Fukuzawa and the Meiji period.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at January 17, 2006 08:42 PM

One thing's for sure: China's producing a lot of stuff, both low tech and moderately high tech, and we're buying a lot of it too.

Whether or not that accounts for the 10% growth is debatable, but the expansion of their economy to produce all this stuff is no mirage. We can take a trip to any of their industrial centers; they are indeed making goods there, and the goods are indeed being bought by the rest of the world.

But back to the issue of centralization, I feel that China's problem is that it has too many natural centers/nodes that for some reason could not work well together, even when sharing a common language and heritage. This is also the basis for the warlord period, or any other period in chinese history where the country was shattered into a jigsaw puzzle, because there were quite a few cities/provinces where one could establish a stable power base.

But certainly, China was, other than the spoken language, relatively uniform in culture, politics and religion.

Perhaps a shattered China might not be so bad after all... hmmm... interesting... Considering that Taiwan is essentially such a node independent of the central ruling authority.


Posted by: The Wobbly Guy at January 18, 2006 05:49 AM

For what it's worth, I think China united is one big power with a lot of problems. China divided into five or ten independent states, perhaps with a loose Chinese confederation and free trade area, would be five or ten great powers, each probably better-governed than today's state.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at January 18, 2006 11:52 AM


A network commonwealth for the Sinosphere, eh?


Posted by: Peter Saint-Andre at January 18, 2006 11:55 AM

A network commonwealth for the Sinosphere, eh?

Actually, it would be a good solution, if they could make it work. It would also be a workable formula for dealing with Taiwan and Hong Kong.

But it goes against engrained thinking.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at January 18, 2006 02:35 PM

Jim-Very interesting thought. Certainly, smaller political units are much more nimble and responsive than a single plodding giant.

Defense is going to be the biggest problem though.

Posted by: The Wobbly Guy at January 18, 2006 10:24 PM

The way to look at China may be to look at the whole Sinosphere (a word I just invented). Singapore, Hong Kong & Taiwan are all run by Chinese & the fact that they have adopted successful economic policies, particularly in the case of Singapore, clearly helped the rise of chairman Deng & the pro-market forces in China. In general overseas Chinese, including in California, have been extraordinarily successful.

I think the success of Europe & ancient Greece can be put down to the long term existence of separate states - China, on occasion, & India, most of the time, were divided but into fluid entities which rose, fell & disappeared regularly. For nodes to form will usually take several generations & so states must be stable for that long.

If this is so then the dissolution of the British Empire was a good thing & the European Union is doomed. Equally the dissolution of the USA would be a good thing. However the acceptance of the sovereignity of nations within their borders is a requirement & as was proven with Yugoslavia & to a lesser extent Iraq the new world order doesn't like individual sovereignty.

Posted by: Neil Craig at January 19, 2006 06:03 AM